General News

Meet the Robot that Scans Your Entire House

Amazon’s latest entry into the smart home device technology is their Astro bot, which they describe as:

“The household robot for home monitoring, with Alexa. When you're away, use the Astro app to see a live view of your home, check in on specific rooms and viewpoints, and get activity alerts. When you're home, Astro can follow you from room to room playing your favorite music, podcasts or shows, and find you to deliver calls, reminders, alarms, and timers set with Alexa.”

As you may expect, along with Amazon’s new device, there has come some concerns from privacy advocates regarding the sheer quantities of data that the Astro bot will be collecting and processing, way above the data their previous home devices have collected. Whilst Amazon’s ring doorbell collects data from outside your home, and Alexa can collect data on what it hears, Astro will be collecting visual and audio data inside users’ homes. The bot comes with multiple cameras, facial recognition and advanced AI. Full scans of rooms will be made, and people’s homes will be under constant surveillance. Astro follows you from room to room, and learns when and how you move around your house, whilst using facial recognition technology to understand who’s who when they’re in your house. It needs to be understood fully how the data will be collected, where it is stored and who has access to it. 

A lot of the data stays on the device, however some audio and video recordings are sent and stored on Amazon’s cloud. Therefore, its vital that this data is sufficiently protected, not only against hackers, but also from improper use by Amazon itself. With the history of big businesses such as Facebook using personal data in ways that go against data privacy legislation, it’s important to ensure that Amazon are complying with the relevant laws. Will Owen, communications manager at the Surveillance Technology Oversight Program  "It's a very dystopian level of surveillance capitalism, just how much Amazon is seeking access to every corner of our homes."

Amazon has tried to alleviate some of the privacy concerns that people have, and have assured users that the processing of facial data, as well as the mapping of rooms takes place on the device, and therefore won’t be sent to the cloud. In addition to this, all the data that Astro collects is encrypted. When Astro is recording, an alert will pop up on the screen to let people know, and they can simply ask Astro to stop recording if they wish to do so. Users can also put Astro into ‘do not disturb’ mode.

There are four main ways that Amazon’s Astro collects data on its users, which I’ll breakdown below: 

1. Home Mapping- Astro scans rooms in your house to map them out, and allows you to label each room. You can also block Astro from entering certain rooms. It also learns the way that you and others move throughout each room it scans, so as to avoid getting in your way. Now, Amazon states that this data that is collected stays on the device, however the fact that such sensitive personal data is even being collected in the first place is a concern for some.


2. Visual ID Technology- Astro can use facial recognition technology to identify people in your house, if you choose to do so. Anyone that wishes to do so, can have their biometric information collected by Astro so that it can recognise who has entered the house, and who it is talking to. This is not a requirement for the use of Astro, and Amazon has once again stated that the biometric data that Astro collects is fully stored on the device. In addition to this, Astro will also delete the data it has on someone if it has not seen that person in 18 months.


3. Video check-in cameras- Astro stores visual and audio data on Amazon’s cloud using its various cameras and microphones. This is done when users are remotely controlling Astro to move around the house, as well as during its automated surveilling of the house when you’re out. The data is encrypted, and it can be prevented by putting Astro on ‘do not disturb’ mode whilst you’re not at home.


4. Alexa- Whilst Astro doesn’t speak, it comes with Alexa installed, who does. The conversations you have with Astro using Alexa are stored in the cloud.


Now, whilst privacy advocates have appreciated and noted the efforts Amazon has made to secure the user data that Astro collects, they also point out that there are concerns that Amazon could change their privacy policies in the future. If this were to happen, people would face the choice of accepting the new terms which could go against their best interests in terms of privacy, or throw away a piece of technology that costs over £1200. Additionally, Amazon has, in the past, used user data in ways that they have not been open about. Until 2019, it was unknown that Amazon employees would listen to the audio data that Alexa collects. Their terms of service failed to highlight this specifically, and merely mentioned that audio recordings were used to improve Alexa’s voice recognition software. After backlash, Amazon amended their terms of service to allow people to opt out of this. Ultimately though, Amazon’s Astro is the first in what may be a long line of home devices that collect this level of data. Whilst Alexa devices have become commonplace when the thought of a speaker recording and listening to your conversations 24/7 would have been inconceivable and intrusive 20 years ago, home devices like Astro could follow the same trend. If this is to be the case, then it’s vital that data privacy is upheld and Amazon’s privacy policies and terms of service put user data privacy first.